Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Josh O'Connor, Bill Nighy, Callum Turner, Connor Swindells, Tanya Reynolds
Handsome, clever and rich are three words assigned to Emma Woodhouse since Jane Austen first wrote her. Autumn de Wilde’s new screen adaptation finds vivid and modern ways to bring these characters to life, but still plays by the book in terms of painting her people with those adjectives. Pretty, smart, opulent, if you like. A little fresher, but still faithful to the page.
The world of this particular Emma leans into the aesthetic pleasures that come with money. Gold details overflow, there are walls of marshmallow pink, church benches in duck-egg blue, and sweet treats and lavish dresses are presented in spades. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the eponymous young woman, a restless busybody with wide eyes, suitably energetic and curious enough to meddle into a full storyline of matchmaking, and a bit of affection for herself too.
The greatest strength of Emma is a deliciously eclectic cast, a who’s who of politely excellent British talent, all clipped and groomed to perform one charming role or another. There’s Johnny Flynn as the bashful and charming fraternal figure Mr. Knightley; Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse with sufficient grumpy and charming quirks; Josh O’Connor, stealing the show with wicked physical humour that you could imagine Wallace only reserving for Gromit.
Elsewhere, two Sex Education alumni and one Fantastic Beasts face join in further taciturn and fidgety roles, while Mia Goth fully leans into infantile levels of bathos. It makes for zippy entertainment, as a sense of mischief and nosiness courses through the film. But it often lets you wonder whether each misunderstanding, every whispered advance and declined wish is pursued with deep feelings, or merely due to boredom. The actors connect with each other through sharp and spiky stares, but they are the sort that prick with the sharpness of a very small needle, leaving little lasting impact.
Whatever the motivations, there is a sustained buoyancy that merrily guides the story along with a singsong spirit. The script is, obviously, occasionally wise. “If a woman doubts whether she should accept a man, she must refuse,” Austen wrote. But for a film about messy matters of the heart, Emma is somewhat too pristine.
Everything is well-lit to a point that makes you wonder if a sense of realism, to place attachment on these people’s feelings, was ever the goal – or whether this is all a very clever, well-designed experiment observing what human beings might act like, if and when they were to break free from their corsets.
Perhaps it’s bad timing that recent framings of the period drama, from Little Women to Portrait of a Lady on Fire have been given such deep, torturous and urgent agency elsewhere – or perhaps Emma is simply a story that must be appreciated for its surface beauty . There’s plenty of that – it may be best to enjoy the sweetness of all those sugary treats, before the taste irrevocably grows too tiresome.
|What||Emma film review|
14 Feb 20 – 14 Feb 21, TIMES VARY
|Price||£ determined by cinemas|
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